Opening-night jitters threatened temporarily to diminish the vocal capacities of Paulo Szot in his new cabaret act at the Café Carlyle. The first four numbers, all part of a well-deserved celebration of the 100th birthday year of composer Burton Lane, suffered from pitch problems. Then something clicked and the romantic Brazilian baritone, who won a Tony for his starring role in South Pacific at Lincoln Center, grew more at ease. As his voice gained strength, his vocal resources increased and so did his artistry. The rest of the show, which runs through Jan. 28, was pure delight.
The catastrophic deconstruction of one of Mr. Lane’s best scores (with Alan Jay Lerner lyrics) in the current, ill-advised Broadway “revival” of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever would have given the elegant, eloquent composer apoplexy, but I think he would have been pleased to hear Paulo Szot’s take on “Too Late Now” and “You’re All the World to Me,” both from the MGM musical Royal Wedding. And it was good to hear two Lane-Lerner songs from one of their least appreciated shows, Carmelina, though not the best two. “It’s Time for a Love Song” is very nice, but “Carmelina,” the title tune, is nothing more than a briskly paced throwaway. I’m curious as to why Mr. Szot didn’t reduce the rapt ringsiders to tears on the best song from that neglected score, a deeply touching “Just One More Walk Around the Garden.” He saved the sentiment for later, with a melting blend of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Retrato Em Branco e Preto” and Michel Legrand’s poignant “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” carefully arranged by the multitalented pianist-musical director Billy Stritch, who is no stranger to bossa nova himself. He’s from Texas, not Brazil, but he knows his music. When you’ve got him at the keyboard of an enormous Steinway, subtly supported by an ace rhythm section comprising David Finck on bass and Dave Ratajczak on drums, any headliner is in very safe and restorative hands indeed.
My favorite part of this show is the Brazilian miniconcert featuring the throbbing tempos of Jobim and Ivan Lins. It’s ballsy to take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s rangy “Soliloquy” from Carousel so soon after Hugh Jackman just knocked out sellout crowds every night on Broadway with the same song, but damn it if Mr. Szot doesn’t stamp it with his own monogram. He doesn’t get around to his three-year stardom as Emile de Becque in South Pacific until the very end, when he gobsmacks his slavish fan base with “This Nearly Was Mine” as a rousing closer. Then, without pausing for a coffee break, he launches into “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot with such power that he erases memories of all previous Lancelots. Few stars of the opera and concert stage make the crossover to the intimacy of a supper club with so much self-assurance. With dark, matinee idol looks and a voice that moves deftly from Broadway show tunes to classical arias with seemingly effortless ease, Paulo Szot promises much and delivers even more.